Monday, December 08, 2014

The book bears witness

"The book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' — it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists . . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, was a terrific palate cleanser of a book. A book lover's book. About book lovers. And one book in particular.
Why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?
The story concerns a book conservationist who's called in to work on a famous manuscript, the Sarajeveo Haggadah — an actual artifact, the history surrounding which inspired Brooks' novelization. It gets a bit meta, with the rare book expert explaining in an article about the conservation project:
I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful. So I wrote and rewrote certain sections of historical background to use as seasoning between the discussion of technical issues.
Because of course, that's exactly how the novel is structured. We follow a trail of forensic clues into the imagined past lives of the book.

This short PBS video summarizes the haggadah's history, including the forensic evidence that helps decipher its past, showcases the gorgeous illuminations, and features commentary from Geraldine Brooks.

The novel offers up a few other interesting things:
  • A line from a poem — "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," by Gerard Manley Hopkins: "Whát I dó is me: for that I came." I'll be mulling over this poem for days to come.
  • Some discussion of the nature of art, and the sinfulness of figurative depictions.
  • The coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though sadly usually fraught with tensions, and worse.
This to say it was a gently thought-provoking read, not too mentally taxing, thoroughly entertaining.

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